5.1. The eternal Armageddon of Jehovah’s Witnesses

5.1. THE ETERNAL ARMAGEDDON OF JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES

Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of the last monstrous progeny of the American religious orgies. Founded in the second part of the 19th century by Charles Taze Russell, the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses rose from the Millerite ash on the theory that the expected event was just, but the date was erroneously calculated. A charismatic figure, Russell never claimed that he had divine revelations. Instead, he believed that God had endowed him with wisdom to correctly interpret the Bible. Between 1870 and 1875 the Russell family, together with the Adventist pastors George Storrs and George Stetson, intensively studied the Bible and the history of Christianity. Following this intellectual effort, the group came to the conclusion that they gained a better understanding of the Bible and that they found significant errors in the foundations of the contemporary Christian doctrine. The entire group rebaptized in 1874.

In parallel with Russell, the former Millerite Nelson Barbour began a new round of biblical and prophetic study. In 1873 he launched the Herald of the Morning magazine, in which he advanced a possible return of Christ in 1874. One year later Russell found a copy of Nelson’s work and contacted him to establish a meeting and to compare the notes. They both agreed that Parousia took place indeed in 1874, but in an invisible way, and it would become visible in 1878. In this period of four years the return of Christ could be known only by the true believers. This is how the association between Barbour and Russell began. The latter was so impressed by the conclusions they had reached, that he decided to sell his clothing stores and to invest the money in conferences, brochures, magazines and books for spreading the new doctrine.

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5. The Third Great Awakening

5. THE THIRD GREAT AWAKENING

It is debatable if a Third Great Awakening took place indeed between 1850 and 1900, or whether what happened was only an extension of the Second Great Awakening. A religious awakening must be preceded by a religious sleep of the masses. Almost a century separates John Winthrop’s discourse from the First Great Awakening. Likewise, there are more than 60 years between the First and the Second Great Awakening. Until the middle of the 19th century the religious awakenings and sleeps interchanged. Instead, the Third Great Awakening started immediately after the Second Great Awakening; there was no period of religious relaxation and, furthermore, the general euphoria was weaker compared to the previous awakenings. The problem was that the Second Great Awakening lacked closure; a good part of the religious systems and utopias which began in the first part of the century extended into the Third Great Awakening. The world and science were changing fast and religion had to keep up the pace; there was no time for another religious relaxation.

The Third Great Awakening seems to have been an irrational reaction to the spreading of atheism and the pressure exercised by science upon religion. In 1859 Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution undermined the infallibility of the Bible, the foundation of Christianity. Social Darwinism, a faulty philosophy which stated that man “must do good,” began to develop. Occultism, theosophy and spiritualism – irrational spiritual movements – rose in reaction to this materialistic and rationalistic attack, at the same time signaling that the theological synthesis of the Second Great Awakening failed. In the middle of the century a large number of Americans were disillusioned by the prophetic or utopian failures, by the problem of slavery, or by the problem of racial and gender inequality. In 1857 a financial panic erupted, causing economic chaos, the bankruptcy of many banks and of the railway companies. The American states were on the brink of collapse and a civil war seemed unavoidable due to the slave-owning issue.

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4.1. The burst of utopian experiments

4.1. THE BURST OF UTOPIAN EXPERIMENTS

America was an auspicious place for social experimentation and the Second Great Awakening was the golden age of utopianism. The majority of American utopias were established on religious grounds, while the rest were scientific experiments. Driven by the belief that they act on God’s command, the religious fanatics isolated themselves from the rest of the world and struggled to build a literal paradise on the earth. But, ironically, utopianism was never envisioned as a democracy, but as a holy communism. The European monarchical system of social inequality was collapsing and people began to search for new forms of political and social organization. The natural tendency of the people was to head toward the other extreme, of absolute equality. Thus, while Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels supported communist ideology on rationalistic grounds, the religious fanatics used biblical arguments; the prototype of the religious utopias was the community of the early Christians.

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4. The Second Great Awakening

4. THE SECOND GREAT AWAKENING

Around the year 1800, in the period following the War of Independence, American society experienced the Second Great Awakening (1800-1840). This phenomenon was the natural consequence of the fact that the Americans gained their freedom. Winthrop’s ideal set in motion the process of formation of the American nation and generated the First Great Awakening; the latter defined the American identity and America’s special role, generating in turn the American Revolution. Now, given the fact that the British problem was solved and America managed to take its destiny into its own hands, the next step was the materialization of Winthrop’s ideal. Unlike the First Great Awakening – which aimed to emphasize America’s extraordinary destiny – the Second Great Awakening focused on creating a utopian society.

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3.1. Ann Lee, Shakerism and the apocalypse of sex

3.1. ANN LEE, SHAKERISM AND THE APOCALYPSE OF SEX

In the 18th century European society was unquestionably masculine, dominated in all aspects by men. Religiously speaking, suggesting at the time that women were spiritually equal to men was a sort of blasphemy, the main argument being Eve’s weakness. According to the English journalist Samuel Johnson, the activity of women preachers was more a circus than a sermon in the real sense of the word: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”997 Yet, one of the boldest and most original dissident groups of the period was led by a woman.

Ann Lee was a victim of the environment in which she lived. The second in a family of eight brothers, she was born in 1736 in a poor district of Manchester, England. Her father was a blacksmith whose modest income hardly fed the family. At the age of eight she was employed in a textile mill, and a couple of years later she served as a cook at the public infirmary and at the madhouse. Manchester was an overpopulated and unhealthy city, with streets full of filth and poverty. The poor workers – including her father – were suppressing their frustrations and despair in alcohol, while rape, prostitution, child abuse, wife beating and infant death were common. This degrading environment triggered in the young Lee a strong aversion to sexual intercourse: “so great was the sense of its impurity, that she often admonished her mother against it, which, coming to her father’s ears, he threatened and actually attempted to whip her.”998

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3. The First Great Awakening

3. THE FIRST GREAT AWAKENING

Although the colonists stepped on the shore of the new Promised Land with optimism, eager to live in freedom, America’s geographical and demographical features proved to be a serious impediment in the materialization of their religious aspirations. The English parochial system supported by Anglicans and Puritans was hardly implemented in the New World. Unlike the compact communities of the Old World, the small farms of America spread into the wilderness, far from a parochial house. The individual was most of the time on his own, struggling to survive and to adapt to an inhospitable land. This aspect seriously affected the attendance to sermons and the ecclesiastical discipline of the common people and it heavily put to the test the secular and ecclesiastical structures. Almost 100 years after John Winthrop’s encouraging discourse, a large part of the population was outside the churches. It was a period of calm and a sort of tension; people were willing to live and share their beliefs, but they did not have the possibility of doing so. Thus, when the settlers finally had the opportunity to manifest themselves, the religious fervor was so intense and widespread that it took the shape of a mass phenomenon called “great awakening.”

The “religious awakening” (or the “religious revival,” this rather referring to local isolated phenomena) is an expression that designates a specific period of increased spiritual interest, a renewal in the religious life of a large area and the establishment of a fervent relation with God after a period of decline. Three great awakenings took place between 1700 and 1900 and all three were accompanied by widespread religious revivals, a surge of interest in the religious phenomena, mass conversions, alleged miracles, speaking in tongues, a deep sense of guilt and contrition, a rewriting of the religious dynamics and an outbreak of new groups and movements.

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